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Haunted houses, horror movies, and other scary things play on fears

Kellie B. Gormly

Oct. 04--Some things that we fear we don't ever want to experience if we can help it: a traumatic loss, a serious illness or injury, getting abducted, being stalked and murdered by a madman, or even something like having an unpleasant conversation with the boss.

Other scares, though, give many people an enjoyable thrill -- namely, frightful yet fictional entertainment like horror movies and haunted houses, or adrenaline-producing activities like skydiving and riding roller coasters.

These activities produce the fight-or-flight response, and pump out brain chemicals that terrorize but thrill us with little risk of harm, says Margee Kerr, an Aspinwall sociologist who studies the psychology of fear and how people react to it.

Horror movies, for instance, give viewers a safe scare, Kerr says, because they are not actually in the fictional situation they are watching. Freddy Krueger is trying to kill a character on the screen. An ax murderer is not stalking you in the woods.

"To enjoy fear, you do need to know that you are safe and you're not in actual danger," says Kerr, 34, who serves as a fear consultant for The ScareHouse, a popular haunted attraction in Etna, and will be giving a presentation about fear at Penn State New Kensington on Oct. 7. "Movies are great for that. You know that the monster's not going to come out from behind the (television). ... You still have to kind of suffer through those tough moments in the movie, but then you get this great award."

Haunted houses, horror movies and other scary things play on our fears, like fear of the dark, and fear of being alone, says Tyler Kozar, director of marketing and graphic designer for Hundred Acres Manor Haunted House.

The South Park attraction has six separate sections -- including a slaughterhouse and an insanity maze -- and benefits Animal Friends and the Homeless Children's Education Fund.

Just about anything that scares you, from zombies to clowns to spiders, you can find at Hundred Acres, yet you know you're safe because it's not real. But when you actually are in the haunted house, your rational mind tends to forget that momentarily, he says.

"A lot of times, the haunted house people get a natural high almost. Your brain releases dopamine," Kozar says. "You feel very strong, you feel very powerful as you go through. You kind of know that you're safe going through it."

Yet, still, as you walk through the haunted house, extra touches make the experience seem real to your senses. Every room is scented -- when you are around zombies, you will smell rotting flesh, he says.

"We kind of take that safe feeling from people," Kozar says.

Surviving a scary experience -- like watching a horror movie, going skydiving or making it through a haunted house -- gives people a self-esteem boost, because they acquire a sense of resilience. People say that after they go skydiving, it feels like they can do anything, Kerr says.

"I definitely encourage people to challenge themselves with a scary or thrilling activity -- it can be very, very rewarding," she says.

Fear covers a huge range of situations and related emotions, Kerr says. And not everyone gets pleasure from a scare. Some people have no desire to watch scary movies or visit haunted houses.

"What's been the most interesting to learn in the past few years is that it's very difficult to draw very tight lines around different emotions," says Kerr, a sociology lecturer at the University of Pittsburgh and psychology lecturer at Robert Morris University. Fear covers "everything from that instantaneous kind of startle, like the lawn mower starting up, to very intense psychological fear and stress."

What scares us may not be that obvious. Gory, for instance, is not necessarily scary. If a scene lacks suspense and surprise, a lot of blood and guts may just be gross, Kerr says.

"Suspense is 90 percent of the equation when it comes to scaring for fun," she says. It's "the anticipation: 'Oh my God, what's coming, what's coming?' "

And though people know on an intellectual level that a movie or haunted house isn't real, reasoning yourself out of fear often doesn't work. Think about how you feel after watching a scary movie: You know there is no bogeyman lurking in the closet, but, even as an adult, you might peek in there and leave the light on before going to bed.

"The fear response doesn't communicate with the rational, logical side of the brain," says Kerr, whose book, "Scream: Adventures in the Upside of Fear," comes out next fall.

"You can sit there and tell someone calmly and rationally ... there are no real witches or vampires, but it doesn't matter," she says. "That gut response is all you hear."

Margee Kerr will be speaking about the thrill-seeking addiction on Oct. 7 at Penn State New Kensington for the school's fall speaker series. The talk begins at 7 p.m. at the Forum Theatre. Tickets are $5. Details: 724-334-6049 or [email protected]

Kellie B. Gormly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7824.

___ (c)2014 The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) Visit The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (Greensburg, Pa.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

DMU Timestamp: March 29, 2019 18:11

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